Monday, September 26, 2022
Sept. 26, 2022

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Clark County History: First Transworld Flight

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Escorted by five Curtiss JN-4s from Pearson Field, four specially outfitted Douglas World Cruisers stopped in Vancouver on St. Patrick’s Day, 1924. Mayor N.E. Allen closed all government offices so employees could join the enormous crowd that included Portlanders. Even the Prunarians showed up in uniform. Each cruiser painted yellow and green bore a symbol — two soaring bald eagles and a globe encircled by the words, Air Service U.S.A. World Flight.

The cruisers — Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle — landed for servicing and refueling before hopping to Seattle’s Lake Washington, where they would start the first flight of their transworld trip on April 6. Five European countries and Argentina also hoped to beat the Americans but would fail.

The open cockpit cruisers carried 2,700 pounds of fuel, leaving 3,000 pounds for equipment, a pilot and a mechanic. Piloting over the sea meant carrying pontoons. Then there were extra parts for quick repairs. To keep the planes light, parachutes and radios were left behind.

Army logisticians mapped the route by breaking it into legs, the shortest 100 miles and the longest 830. They set up well-equipped repair and supply depots, seven of which could handle major overhauls, even swapping out engines. The 175-day, 27,000-mile flight kept to the northern hemisphere, never crossing the equator.

Fragile aircraft, tricky navigation, bad weather and icebergs became the enemies of success. To skirt the worst weather, the planes flew west over Alaska then down the Asian coast, ultimately stopping in 28 countries and making 72 stops for fuel and maintenance.

Two of the 12-cylinder cruisers were lost. The Seattle’s pilot misjudged low ground and crashed into an Alaskan coastal mountain near Moller Point. Although the injuries were minor, it took the pilot and mechanic, Maj. Frederick Martin and Staff Sgt. Alva Harvey, several days to walk through snow and fog to safety.

The Boston lost its oil pump and set down in a turbulent sea near Iceland. After a rough landing, the sea tossed the craft around with the pilot and mechanic as they waited for help. Hours later, two destroyers pulled alongside to help. While lifting the plane using a sling, an immense wave pitched the Boston into the crane. The ship’s captain said towing the aircraft would sink his ship. Sailors chopped holes in the Boston’s pontoons. After flying 20,000 miles, the Boston dipped below the North Atlantic.

On Sept. 27, the record holder of the first flight across the United States, Lt. Oakley Kelly, and six more Pearson pilots flew to Eugene, Ore. The seven flyers would escort the Boston II, Chicago and New Orleans. When the oil pump of Boston II failed, the World Cruisers landed a second time at Pearson Field.

The cruisers’ flight time was 363 hours and seven minutes. After a quick repair, the planes flew in V-formation from the airfield, headed to Sand Point Field to avoid the Seattle throng awaiting them, completing the first circumnavigation of the globe by air. Later, Congress awarded the airmen (except Martin and Harvey) the Distinguished Service Medal, the first time it was bestowed for nonmilitary action.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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